Objects of history

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

On the politics of the Naga Students' Federation's warning against any academic research into the Naga people's history without its permission.

QUESTIONS about the ownership of a people's history have always exercised the passions and imagination of people, especially those who for various reasons have become objects of history instead of being in control of their history. The description fits the majority of the people. The same is the case with the felt passions too, though these are not always articulated cogently.

Recently, the Naga Students' Federation (NSF), a body whose support to Naga nationalistic aspirations and Naga sovereignty is well known, issued a directive and a warning requiring non-Naga scholars to secure its permission and clearance before undertaking any academic research pertaining to the Naga people, in particular their history. Maintaining that the history of the Naga people had been distorted by such research by non-Naga scholars, the president of the NSF said that `people from outside the Naga community' would not be allowed to undertake any research on Naga history without the organisation's permission.

The immediate provocation for this directive is, apparently, the `genome project' that has been undertaken at Nagaland University. The project, initiated by some scholars of the university, both Naga and non-Naga, has been going on for the last two years. Among other things, the project requires the collection of blood samples from every Naga tribe. The purpose of such research, with its obvious bearing on aspects of the physical anthropology of the objects of the research, it was felt, could well be to establish - if there is any need to do so - that the various Naga people of Nagaland (and of neighbouring States) who claim historic memories of being one people and who, as both the cause and consequence of the Naga insurgency, are in the process of constructing themselves into Naga, transcending all tribal divisions, are actually discreet and separate people, not one `nation' that Naga nationalist discourse insists they are.

Historically, the Naga people are divided into various tribal communities (the expression tribe and derivatives thereof have not yet become politically incorrect usage in these parts, though they will doubtless become so soon) whose numbers as well as nomenclatures have undergone some interesting changes over the years. Official records of the State government at present identify 14 separate tribal groups; however, there can be no finality about this number. At least one of these, the Zeliang-Kuki, is a self-evidently artificial construct, while another, the Chakesang, is a sort of portmanteau construct whose members were not so long ago categorised under three different denominations. Such a process of deconstruction of communities with seeming internal coherence to reconstruct other identities is not, after all, a unique phenomenon.

The concern about `genome research', such as it is (which is how sceptical scholars in the region view the programme), though perhaps ill-informed, is understandable. Those espousing Naga nationalistic aspirations and Naga sovereignty are at present on a high, having got the Government of India to get off its high horse and engage in talks with the leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) on terms laid down by the latter. So, any research at this stage, whose implications might be to provide legitimacy to what Naga nationalists maintain were `colonialist constructs', the atomisation of the Naga people into mutually antagonistic tribes, is automatically suspect and could well be seen as a setback to the gains made by the Naga nationalists. While such suspicions might appear utterly ahistorical in any dispassionate consideration of the `Naga national question', the fact is that in these harsh times, history has more or less lost any claims - if indeed it had at any time - of being a detached study of a people's past and present.

Other recent NSF directives that are in fact renewals of initiatives undertaken periodically earlier are stricter enforcement of the existing Inner Line Regulations and warnings to non-Naga men residing in the State not to acquire immovable assets or marry Naga women. Interestingly, admonishments against Naga men marrying non-Naga women are seldom issued, consistent with the cultural norms in the rest of the country as well that sees a woman as the custodian of a people's history and heritage and whose `purity' has to be maintained. In the immediate context, however, the injunction against non-Naga men marrying Naga girls is related to the widely held conviction that many illegal migrants in the State, overwhelmingly male, have entered into such marriages of convenience with a view to legitimising their status as permanent residents.

On the face of it, such directives that are not enforceable except through coercion appear rather silly. For instance, the growth of Dimapur, the ancient capital of the Dimasa kings and now the largest city in Nagaland where the Inner Line Regulations do not apply, has been influenced by considerations that have little to do with Naga nationalism, non-Naga men marrying Naga girls or things like that. Indeed, the very ownership of the city is contested by Dimasa nationalist organisations fighting for a separate Dimasaland (Dimaraji), whose envisaged territory, as always, has claims across existing State/district boundaries.

But then, this is not the first initiative of its kind by the NSF, or indeed by other self-appointed guardians of a people's history, heritage and culture, terms that can be interpreted elastically. One recalls that during the height of the Assam agitation against foreign nationals, there were calls that Assamese women, in particular students in colleges and universities, should wear only the traditional Assamese dress, strikingly beautiful (and quite expensive) but hardly the most practical kind of dress that a young woman could wear every day to work and study. Again, interestingly, corresponding directives were never issued in respect of the male Assamese youth simply because, as leaders of the anti-foreigner agitation, clad in trousers and safari suits and jeans and such accoutrements, it was they who issued such prescriptions and proscriptions.

These norms, and the underlying romanticisation and fear of and anxieties about female sexuality, continue even to this day, evident in any public function where the mandatory opening song is sung by a chorus of boys and girls, the girls all dressed in traditional finery while the boys are more casually dressed.

Given its origins, which are deeply rooted in the very beginnings of the Naga nationalist struggle, the NSF clearly considers itself as having rather more legitimacy in claiming the ownership of history and issuing more directives than many other corresponding `student' organisations in the region. Indeed, disapproval of, if not outright ban upon, research by `outsiders' on tribal societies of the northeastern region is becoming the norm.

While structures calling for such an exclusion or outright ban are yet in no position to enforce the proscription, they can certainly be an inhibiting factor. "We will study our societies ourselves, we will not allow outsiders to study them", is now a fairly commonplace sentiment among many tribal groups.

However, while such a self-appointed gatekeeping role in respect of academic research (or modes of social conduct) by student organisations is rather laughable and certainly deserves to be condemned - who gave the authority to the NSF to lay down the law, one may question with all the indignation one can muster - one also has to admit that these new censors have modelled themselves after very respectable and powerful precedents - states and governments with greater legitimacy. One laughs at (or quails over) such diktats depending on the muscle that those who issue such orders muster. But academic gatekeeping as a method to control free intellectual activity has perfectly legitimate precedents.

The point hardly needs to be pressed in respect of academic research, or even the much less exalted profession of journalism, the routine reporting and analysis of news and events, in northeast India. Several `sensitive' areas of study and, in some cases, whole physical spaces, have been demarcated as out of bounds, not solely to foreign scholars but to locals as well. Foreign scholars interested in the region are required to submit details of their proposed research before they get a visa to travel to India - not to speak of the further hurdles, like the Restricted Area Permit and the Inner Line Permit, they have to cross if they have to visit the area of their study in the region. Their host institutions in the region too sometimes come under scrutiny.

The rationale for such restrictions and monitoring is that India is now viewed by those in authority as a besieged state; that much of the academic research by foreign scholars and their Indian collaborators relating to the problems in the northeastern region, very broadly issues of ethnicity, insurgency and unresolved national questions though much criminality too masquerades under such high-sounding problematique, is driven not by academic interest or democratic instincts but by more malignant considerations.

Perhaps the kind of restrictions imposed by the Indian state is not unique. Even more likely, they are not being strictly implemented, given the huge internal contradictions that affect every aspect of governance in India, including issues of national security. And what has one to make of the reports of stricter monitoring in the United States and other prosperous Western countries of research into `sensitive areas' with a bearing on national security by scholars of the Third World, certainly by Arab and Muslim scholars, following the attack on symbols of American authority and power on September 11, 2001? Indeed, even journalists from the Third World whose passports clearly identify their profession, are finding it hard to get a visa across the counter; applications for visas that would allow one to work, as different from tourist visas, will in many cases have to be cleared by the authorities in the capital of the country that one plans to visit as part of one's work.

In other words, suspicion and disapproval of `foreign' influences on the subjects of history while those tasked with shaping that history revel in absorbing every aspect of that very same pernicious `foreign' culture is a near universal phenomenon. For instance, the `traditional kings and princes' and `traditional leaders' in South Africa, some of whom are among the richest and most Westernised South Africans, nevertheless mobilise their supporters on the most parochial issues, demand the most feudal of loyalties, routinely admonishing them against succumbing to corrupt Western influence, in the process demarcating vast areas as their exclusive fiefdoms where no political challenge is allowed. Coming closer home, those leaders of the freedom movement in India who had the advantages of a Western education and were highly Westernised in their lifestyles routinely pandered to and promoted `traditional' values for their adoring followers, though not for their own progeny. There is no need to press the point about the advantages that such prohibitions and admonitions have brought to the owners of history.

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